Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Quick Check-in with the Iditarod

I'm sure it has not escaped anyone's notice in Alaska that the Iditarod has begun. As of my last check, most of the leading racers were out of Nicolai, while the leader, Martin Buser is out of McGrath. I know there are many teachers who do big, involved units of study and projects on the Iditarod, while others do some parallel activities like keeping maps, or doing some readings.

Those teachers doing the big stuff are already well aware of the Official Site of the Iditarod. For those of you who'd like to give your students some peeks into the race and treat it more along the lines of current events, the Official Site of the Iditarod is great. Simple to navigate, with a list of short, relevant videos right on the front page, as well as current race standings - this page can give your classes some quick but exciting insight into the most famous sled dog race in the world!

Just plug your projector or SmartBoard in and bring your class instantly to all the excitement!

Want more depth? If students get interested, there are plenty of great links within the site for even more information about the race and the racers!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Download and/or Convert Video

Recently in our district, teachers were given access to video channels. Since we don't have a lot of bandwidth in our schools, streaming is not recommended as it will bog down the system for all, and it will also probably be a very frustrating experience if you are trying to stream video for students.

It is recommended that if teachers find video they want to use that they download it to their computers and then share it with their students via their desired medium.

A couple of easy sites for downloading video:
1. KeepVid - this site is super simple - Find your video, copy the URL into the space at the top of their page, hit the "download" button. It may take a couple of minutes depending on the size of your video, but very soon it will be on your computer.

2. Zamzar - still easy, but an extra step or two - copy the URL of your video into the space they give, BUT then you can choose the file format you want (you many want only the audio from a video - so convert it to an MP3 file) or any of the many video formats such as wmv, mp4, mov, flv, or whatever your particular needs are. Zamzar will convert it and send it to your email. From there you click the link they send and it will download to your computer. Besides being a good site to download videos, Zamzar is also a handy file converter.

Showing video to students

Of course the simplest way to do this is to project it on your screen or IWB for the whole class. But what if you want to "personalize" the video? Ideally we can easily give students different videos, allow students the ability to stop, start, and replay the video to suit their needs. There are a number of options for doing this - here are a few easy ones;

1. Drag the video clip into a Pages document with some questions or directions and distribute it to students via a thumb drive, Remote Desktop, or emai (all AGSD teacher Macs come loaded with Pages - if student or school Macs for some reason don't have it ask Jason. It can be loaded easily).
2. Load the video to an iPod Nano, or an iPod Touch for individual use.
3. Upload the video to your class blog or wiki site allowing students access to it anytime and anywhere.

Store all of your video downloads in your iTunes - simply open iTunes and drag your new video to it. iTunes will store it into your "movies" library.

Most of the time we just need some movies that are a few minutes long that enhance or reiterate our lessons, and that will help the students. Don't forget that any videos you or your students create can also be added to your movie library!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Technology is Not the Thing

I recently entered a competition in which I submitted some lesson plans that use technology. The idea was that a certain number of the "best" lessons would earn a significant sum of money for their school to spend on technology. I don't usually get into these things, but the prize was grand enough that it definitely seemed worth the hour or two it would take to sort through some old lessons and upload them to the contest site. I obviously use technology a lot in my classes, and have a ton of lessons to draw from - so there was nothing new I would have to create. My thinking was, I'd submit 10 of what I considered my most successful lessons. Not my flashiest lessons, just my most successful. I wasn't sure if I'd win - I knew that was a crap shoot.

I didn't win.

The winners submitted lessons that ultimately involved big video productions of what can only be described as technology orgies. The winning entries had a mammoth project theme. There was a teacher at the front of the room doing amazing magic on an interactive white board, students were doing things on the whiteboard, students were doing things on their computers, they were videoing each other, they were working together on the laptops, they were interviewing each other with podcasting mics, and it was all put together in a beautifully edited iMovie production complete with music and transitions so that the contest judges could see all this exciting classroom action. It was definitely awesome stuff.

It did not escape my notice that the winning lessons were videos typical of the kind of lessons that are often presented to teachers as the "ideal" or model of what technology in the classroom should look like. No wonder some are afraid - those videos made me afraid!

I wasn't surprised that I didn't win - I just had my fingers crossed anyway. The real surprise to me was the feedback I got on the lessons I submitted. Here is the gist of those comments;
"The students are not learning about the technology." "You do not say how the use of technology in this lesson creates learning." "This lesson could have been taught without technology."
...and so on -ish.

The first thing I realized was that I guess I could have explained some things more carefully in the plans I submitted - I just submitted the plans as I had originally written them for myself.

But the more important thing I realized was that we are entering a phase with technology in instruction where many teachers who have been using it for awhile have integrated it into their teaching style - it's part of our methodology.

In my classroom, the technology is not the thing. Make no mistake, my students use technology every single day - I teach in a 1:1 school. They use Web 2.0 tools to create content about what they are learning in class. The make short videos of what they have learned and post them to teach their classmates a quick lesson. They routinely share Google Docs online with classmates to work collaboratively. They email and chat online with me outside of school about assignments. They blog. They write with embedded links to enhance and deepen their work. They keep their school work organized by using digital portfolios. They have an expectation that I will bring experts into the room through video and Skype. And so on.

However, my students don't come into my classroom every day saying, "Yay - we get to work on a big project!" I like projects, and sometimes we do projects. But in my classroom, the content - the learning is the thing. The technology just helps us to do that a lot better for every student.

I like the analogy of classroom technology and cell phones. Our cell phones are not some golden toy (unless we are using them to kill time in an airport playing games on them). We need them. We keep calendars on them, we keep notes on them, and - by the way - we communicate with them. Many of us have incorporated them into our lives to the point that we cannot imagine going without them. Of course we could, but our life would be missing some connections, some organization, and some powerful and useful tools that we had become accustomed to having at our fingertips, in our purses and pockets.

Remember your first cellphone? Some people are still viewing technology in the classroom with the same kind of awe and wonder. The reality is, cell phones are now ubiquitous. But much of the perception of classroom technology is still in the "first cell phone" phase.